Saturday, 10 February 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 31

I'm so far ahead with these posts now that I'm in the rather weird situation of having to write up the summaries weeks after having written the reviews; heck, I say weeks, but I don't even remember when I watched this stuff!  I guess Christmas, since I found the time to get through Sol Bianca: The Legacy, which had been on my shelf forever, and there's only one time of the year when you're guaranteed three whole hours in a row to sit down and watch anime.  Man, wouldn't it be great if it was Christmas all the time?  I mean not all the rubbish stuff, like the crap songs and the weird food and the indiscriminate tree murder.  No, just the bit where you get to hang out for a week watching all the anime that you otherwise can't make time for.

So in the spirit of Christmas, possibly, unless I've just got my dates mixed up, let's dig into some not-remotely-seasonal nineties anime.  This time around: Gestalt, MadaraUrusei Yatsura: Ryoko's September Tea Party and Sol Bianca: The Legacy...

Gestalt, 1997, Osamu Yamasaki

It seems to me that there was always something a little sleazy and exploitative about the way that anime was released outside of Japan prior to the twentieth century - and I'm not talking about the likes of Legend of the Overfiend here.  I'm referring more to the rough-and-readiness that companies like MVM, US Manga Corp and ADV brought to the scene: though evidently there was at least some earnest desire to introduce good-quality anime to the US and Europe, that was never to say that anyone would ignore the possibility of a quick buck, even when it wasn't strictly deserved.

And so we get to Gestalt - or rather, the first two episodes of Gestalt, since that's all that was ever released.  I am assuming that MVM knew this when they committed to releasing the title on DVD, and I'm further assuming that the decision to not mention the fact that this was two episodes of a canceled miniseries (or series, for all I know) was not an accidental one.

It's useful to know this going in, because it certainly does sugar the pill if you don't expect any answers, or even for our intrepid heroes to do more than talk about the country in question, which dashing young priest Oliver is seeking when he gets sidetracked into rescuing sexy and initially mute sorceress Ohiri, who may well come from the land of Gestalt and certainly knows a great deal more than she's letting on.  What any of that is we're unlikely to ever know - I've no idea if the Manga got a release outside of Japan - and what we get instead is a bit of an introduction and what amounts to a side quest.  And this, on the whole, is probably a good thing.  I mean, the many questions raised are tantalizing, but this isn't like Sol Bianca, where the prospect of never discovering how things will work out is legitimately painful.  Gestalt is silly and fluffy and not terribly concerned with its own plot; it would much rather spend time parodying other anime and JRPGs, with gags such as the way Ohiri's initial voicelessness manifests in her talking in rectangular dialogue boxes that look exactly like something out of Final Fantasy.  Really, that's about the level we're operating at here, and if the idea makes you smile then you're probably on Gestalt's wavelength.

I certainly was, on the whole.  The animation is resolutely mid-budget TV quality, but the characters are charming, the action sequences are fun, the spell effects are pretty cool, and by the end I was left vaguely sad that there'd never be any more episodes, but not so much so that I felt I'd wasted an hour of my life.  I paid about £2.50 for Gestalt, and I'd say that was precisely right: it kept me amused, Oliver and Ohiri were likable company, and there's every possibility I'll want to watch it again one of these days.  For an utterly dispensable, unfinished, comic fantasy OVA that MVM dropped out for wholly mercenary reasons, I'm willing to call that a win.

Madara, 1991, dir: Yûji Moriyama

Beyond a certain point, it's the little things that count.  I mean, if you were to try and persuade me that Madara was hackneyed crap then I'd have a hard time fighting its corner.  There's a chosen-one hero, there's an evil lord, there's a village full of kindly folks who all get slaughtered early on enough to kick the plot into motion; there's a fair maiden who turns out to have powers of her own, and eventually the hero's brother turns up.  Would you be astonished to hear that he holds a grudge against Madara and blames him for the death of their mother?  I suspect you wouldn't.  No, it's easy to see how someone might take a cursory look at this and determine that it was a damn sight like every other nineties fantasy movie, anime or no.

But let's focus in on a few details, shall we?  Because for all the ways that Madara feels achingly familiar, there are a couple more where it's surprising as all get out.  Madara's chosen-one power?  Why, that would involve shooting rockets out of his shoulders and firing off his own hands like little punchy missiles.  And heroine Kirin's special ability?  Well, she can control two giant mecha.  Oh, and at one point, Noah's arc turns up.  It's kind of a spaceship.  Piloted by a guy with monkeys.  And none of this is explained at all.  Like an awful lot of Madara, it just sort of happens, and you're expected to rock along with it.  Probably this has a fair bit to do with the disadvantages of adapting the manga into two hour long OVA episodes, but the result in the moment is a certain fever-dream quality, along with a gleeful sense that just about anything might happen next.

This is helped no end by a sparse but superb soundtrack - the punky end song is marvelous - and by the visuals, which, though not extraordinary in terms of budget, are exemplary on the level of ambition and design.  Again, it comes down to the little things, those details of character and small touches that are frequently the difference between mediocre and really good animation.  But there's also some exciting design work going on - the monster designs are enticingly weird - and, what really sets Madara apart, an ambition in the colour scheme that's especially rare.  The show overwhelmingly favours reds, blues, and some of the most gorgeous shades of purple you're every likely to see, and a surprisingly excellent print makes the colours pop.  Madara has moments of genuine beauty, and that's not something you have any right to expect from a cheesy nineties fantasy OVA about a guy who rocket-punches monsters.

I suspect the crucial different here can be traced to Yûji Moriyama, who has immediately entered the pantheon of my nineties anime heroes.  Moriyama wouldn't have such an amazing career as a director (though he was behind my beloved Geobreeders) but, taken as a whole, his CV is astonishing.  Project A-Ko, Wings of Honneamise, Evangelion, Gunbuster, Robot Carnival, Macross Plus, and, for the coup de grâce, All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku!  Seriously, if you ever need to win a nineties anime game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Moriyama is your man.

As is probably obvious by now, I had great fun with Madara; really, it ticked all of my nineties anime boxes.  None of that quite adds up to it being any sort of classic, because that would require a great deal more originality than we get.  But then, sometimes a classic isn't what you're after.  I had a joyous two hours reveling in Madara's craziness, its refusal to explain the basics of its wacky universe, and its endless shades of purple, each more gorgeous than the last.  In fact, while I'd recommend Madara to anyone who wants a couple of hours of bonkers but undemanding fantasy, if you're a fan of purple then it really is an indispensable release.


Urusei Yatsura: Ryoko's September Tea Party, 1985, dir's: Keiji Hayakawa, Junji Nishimura, Mamoru Oshii, Tsugio Ozawa, Iku Suzuki, Osamu Uemura, Kazuo Yamazaki, Naoyuki Yoshinaga

Did I enjoy the Urusei Yatsura movies enough to watch the eleven OVAs that were also released?  Er, it seems that I did; or at least I managed to find a reasonably-priced copy of the box set and couldn't resist, which amounts to the same.  At any rate, only two of them were even close to feature length, so we're all spared the bother of me trying to find interesting things to say about nearly a dozen more Urusei Yatsura releases.

Except that I don't really have anything interesting to say about Ryoko's September Tea Party either.  The thing is, it's a clip show is what it is, though I didn't know that going in: apparently there's about fifteen minutes of new footage here, though it feels like less.  The arc plot, if you're feeling generous about using words like "arc" and "plot", finds Ryoko - a character I'm not confident I've run into in the movies - suffering from such ennui with her life of crushing wealth and inactivity that she orders the army of ninjas who apparently look after her to organize a tea party and invite a select few of the inhabitants of Tomobiki, including Lum and her obnoxious darling Moroboshi.  Ryoko then precedes to tell them stories about how she first came to town, which presumably they all already know, and then interrogates her guests for anecdotes about their own bizarre lives.  The result is eight or so sequences plucked apparently at random from what I assume to be the first season of the show, since this was the first of the OVA releases.  Some of them are pretty funny; others don't stand alone at all.  All of them rely on a knowledge of the characters that would utterly defy the casual viewer.

At least the production values are solid: the new footage is especially good, but the scenes from the show are hardly shoddy.  And there are two or three presumably new tunes, too, if you're the kind of person who hunts down vanishingly rare anime releases from three decades ago to hear a bit of J-pop you've never run across before.  Um ... I'm reaching here, aren't I?  The truth is, while Ryoko's September Tea Party started pretty well, by the end I was eager for it to be over.  All its best material is clustered in the first half, and after that it's a bit like - well, like watching a load of people you barely know hanging out at a party to which you weren't invited.  So definitely one for the fans, I'd say, in so much as that means anything thirty years after the event.

Sol Bianca: The Legacy, 1999, dir: Hiroyuki Ochi

Perhaps the most curious thing about Sol Bianca: The Legacy is that it exists at all.  The original, two-part OVA that this rather longer entry is a sort-of sequel to and sort-of reinterpretation of underperformed sufficiently that it was never finished, despite being all sorts of fantastic.  So did its reputation grow in the intervening eight years?  Did Japanese audiences realise they'd dropped the ball in dismissing one of the most gorgeous, unusual, and engaging slices of anime ever and begin to clamor for more?  Or at least for some closure, since Sol Bianca did a frustrating business of raising questions that would never be answered?

Perhaps!  I guess stranger things have happened in the world of anime.  But at least on the latter count, The Legacy was sure to be a disappointment: it's not much of a one for question-answering, and its universe and themes are sufficiently different-seeming that they're hard to square with Sol Bianca in any meaningful fashion.  Nor does it quite look the part: eight years was a long time in nineties animation, such a long time that the seemingly short gap between the two releases was enough to usher in a computer-assisted approach that, while probably nigh-on cutting edge for the time, stood no hope of being as pretty as the truly lovely original.  The style reminds me more of American animation, or specifically of what certain video games were getting up to in aping that style.  It's terrifically smooth and the characters look great in close ups, the CG is surprisingly well integrated and certainly warrants its inclusion, but there are enough shots that appear flat-out wrong that its hard to be consistently impressed.

To some extent, that's Sol Bianca: The Legacy all over.  It's never bad and occasionally really good, certainly on a par with most of what was around at the time.  If the cast feel a touch watered down - their response on finding a young stowaway this time is not, for example, to start looking for the nearest airlock - it's still great to see a show where most of the characters are adult women who act at least somewhat in a manner that real adult women might act.  Meanwhile, the arc plot takes a couple of episodes too long to find its feet, but when it does, it's actually pretty novel and exciting, hinting at a wider universe in satisfying ways and tying off enough loose ends to not aggravate.

But it's not Sol Bianca.  In fact, more than anything, it feels like a piece of really solid Sol Bianca fan fiction made by people who obviously have a ton of affection for what's come before, even if they don't altogether get what made it work.  Yet at the same time, the results are good enough to leave you wondering what might have been; how might these characters and this setting have developed given another OVA or even a full series?  In that sense, Sol Bianca: The Legacy doesn't so much as fill the hole left by the original as dig another, somewhat smaller hole nearby.  It's a worthwhile addition to one of the great anime franchises to never remotely reach its full potential, but not quite a worthy one.  Nevertheless, there remains a smart, original show here, one with a fine cast brought to life with solid production values, and the excellent music alone makes it worth a punt.  By all means give Sol Bianca: The Legacy a go if you ever get the chance, there's a lot to like and a fair bit to love.  Just know that, despite what its title may think, it's not quite the legacy that the marvelous Sol Bianca truly deserved.

-oOo-

Again, what with the whole time lag thing, my memory is a little blurry here, and you know what's weird?  The thing that I remember with most fondness is Gestalt.  It can't possibly have been half as good as I remember, and yet I really want to know what would have happened.  Meanwhile, the disappointment of Sol Bianca: the Legacy has decreased with time, to the point where I'd already quite like to give it another go.  Which leaves Madara as the only thing my opinion has stayed exactly the same on, even if all I can remember is how damned purple it was.  Oh, and there was that Yurusei Yatsura OVA, wasn't there?  Man, I hope that buying the entire Yurusei Yatsura OVA collection was a better investment than it seems to be on the available evidence!

Next time around?  Who can possibly remember?  But it's a safe bet that some of it will be utterly terrible and at least one thing will be kind of great!


[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29, Part 30]






Sunday, 4 February 2018

Corporate Cthulhu Open For Business

If there really are merciless elder gods from beyond time and space hovering on the fractured fringes of our reality, it makes perfect sense that they would find themselves in the world of big business.  I mean, really, where else would they wind up?  Why sleep away the eons in the frigid depths of the ocean when you could be drawing down a six figure salary just for turning up to a few meetings?  Why spread madness and horror from some dingy cavern or dream-dimension when you can wreck the sanity of whole nations with a little malpractice in the world of high finance?  Why scour the earth of sentient life yourself when you can set up a corporation to do much the same and rake in a buck or seven trillion while you're at it?

Yup, as strange as the tales gathered within the anthology Corporate Cthulhu: Lovecraftian Tales of Bureaucratic Nightmare surely are, the strangest thing is that it took so long for someone to put the two concepts together.

Well, okay, this certainly isn't the first time - though to my knowledge it is the first time anyone's thought to use the combination for a themed collection, so credit is still due to editor Edward Stasheff and publisher Pickman's Press for taking a good idea and running with it.  But I know for a fact that the concept isn't one hundred percent new because I wrote my own story pairing the twin nightmares of the Mythos and rampant capitalism way back in my early years as a writer.  The God Under the Church was born out of the same impulses that led to many of the stories in my collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, and was even a near miss for that book, due to the fact that I didn't have the time at that point to polish it up to my satisfaction.  But I didn't want to miss another opportunity to get it back out there, and there couldn't have been a more perfect fit for a tale in which a new corporate director starts to discover the very-sinister-indeed history of the company in which he's worked.

If that sounds like your idea of fun, you can pick up a copy of Corporate Cthulhu here on Amazon UK and here on Amazon US.  And here's the full table of contents:
DEATH PLEDGE by Jeff Deck
WELCOME TO THE R’LYEH CORPORATION by James Pratt
SHADOW CHARTS by Marcus Johnston
CASUAL FRIDAY by Todd H. C. Fischer
THE GOD UNDER THE CHURCH by David Tallerman
REFUSAL by DJ Tyrer
DAGON-TEC by Adam Millard
ESOTERIC INSURANCE, INC. by Evan Dicken & Adrian Ludens
CAREER ZOMBIE by John Taloni
BOEDROMION NOUMENIA by Andrew Scott
INCORPORATION by Max D. Stanton
THE LOPONINE EXPLOITATION by John M. Campbell
FESTIVAL PREPARATIONS by Justin Bailey
MARYANNE’S EQUATIONS by Harry Pauff
WHOLESOME LABOR by Sam Rent
LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR by Wile E. Young
TINDALOS, INC. by Charlie Allison
CLEAN UP AISLE FOUR by Josh Storey
FORCED LABOR by Peter Rawlik
THE SHADOWS LENGTHEN in the Close by Ethan Gibney
IT CAME FROM I.T. by Gordon Linzner
RETRACTION by Marie Michaels
FACILITIES MANAGEMENT AT DAGOCORP HQ by L Chan
NO DOVES COME FROM RAVEN EGGS by Mark Oxbrow
APOTHEOSIS by Darren Todd

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Black River Chronicles: Who Would You Be?

I was once asked in an interview, "If you could live in the world of a fantasy novel, which one would it be?" and again, "If you could be any one of your characters, who would you choose?"  The answer to both questions was the same: I wouldn't want to live in any fantasy world, thank you very much, and certainly not one of my own.  Those places are dangerous!  I mean, real life is dangerous, but fantasy lands are seriously dangerous.  I might stub my toe, or slip on an icy pavement, or get a funny tummy from eating shrimp that's been in the fridge for too long, but I don't expect to ever have to stare down a dragon.

But if I was going to be a character in a fantasy novel, especially one of my own, I wouldn't pick anyone at the Black River Academy; even by relative standards, it seems severely hazardous.  And if I had kids, I wouldn't let my kids go there either.  Oh, that head tutor Borgnin might make a big show of having safety measures in place, but have you ever seen them in action?  Have they once teleported out a party that were about to be splatted by trolls or devoured by giants?  Well, maybe; I mean, I don't want to disparage the educational establishment in my own books.  Still, I'd be awfully wary if I found myself there, and I wouldn't waste any time buying a ticket on the first stagecoach to Luntharbor, which frankly sounds like a far nicer spot.

Now, I realise that I'm a grump with no sense of adventure and perhaps too healthy a sense of self-preservation, and not everyone's like me.  Some people enjoy imagining themselves as characters in even the most dangerous of stories, and no doubt there's at least someone out there who's thought "Boy, I'd sure like to be one of the students in those Black River Chronicles, they seem to be having plenty of fun, what with the murderous shapeshifters and the savage unicorns and the poisonous giant toads and the walking corpses."

For those people: congratulations on being much braver than I am.  And I've made you a little quiz.  Because there's no use imagining yourself as a character in the Black River Chronicles without knowing which of the party you're most suited to be, right?  I mean, maybe you're envisaging yourself as Hule when you'd be much better off as Arein; maybe you like the idea of firing off the odd arrow and running away a lot the way Durren does, but you'd be far better off slinking around in the shadows and generally being all Tia-like?  Or, you know, perhaps you're be best off as a floating eyeball that really doesn't contribute all that much.  Because that's an option, too!

The point being: there's now a Black River Chronicles quiz.  And you can find it here.  Have fun!  And don't come complaining to me if you don't get the answer you want, it was created using rigorous science and is totally infallible!

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 30

You know that thing where you're going for a walk, and then you realise you're in a swamp, and you think 'Ah, okay, this is interesting.  Oh look, a butterfly!  And is that an alligator?'  And you keep going, because swamps are pretty cool, right?  But after a while you decide to stop, and when you look back the way you came, all you can see is swamp.  And when you look to left and right, you grasp too late that there's nothing but swamp in any direction.

You know that feeling, right?  No?  Then maybe this wasn't the awesome metaphor I thought it was.  Look, the swamp was meant to be nineties anime, and the you was meant to be me, and the point was that there's a never-ending amount of nineties anime and that the title for these posts was really well chosen, though I didn't know that at the time.

Anyway, who cares about any of that when there's nineties anime to review?  This time: Geobreeders 2: Breakthrough, Battle Arena Toshinden, Ys: Legacy (Book One) and Big Wars...

Geobreeders 2: Breakthrough, 2000, dir's: Kiyoshi Fukumoto, Shin Misawa

And here I am, ignoring my own rules yet again and reviewing a release that is absolutely, definitely from the year 2000, which - as the calendar geeks among you may be aware - isn't in any way a part of the nineties.  But for once I have a solid excuse, in that Geobreeders: Breakthrough is the sequel to the original Geobreeders OVA, which did come out in the nineties, and not only is it a sequel but the two releases make a damn sight more sense when watched back to back.

Plus, Geobreeders is maybe my favourite Manga ever.  So there's that.

Taken at first impressions, Breakthrough is something of a step down from the original show, which I rewatched in preparation and was surprised to discover looked really rather fantastic; Breakthrough, by contrast, while not by any means shabby, shows more evidence of a tight budget, errs towards cartoonier takes on the character designs, and has a definite feel to it that screams of twenty-first century anime before twenty-first century anime really found its feet - though it has to be said that what CG appears is incorporated nicely and justifies its existence.  At least, except for the explosion in the opening credits, which is so dismal that you sort of wonder if it was meant as a joke.

Once things bed in, however, Breakthrough feels very much like coming home after the original OVA; it's startling, in fact, how little concession it makes to the potential viewer who might be joining the series fresh.  The story this time runs to four episodes rather than three, and is appropriately more convoluted, in a manner that also feels like a joke: there are at least four significant plot threads, which only meet towards the very end, and two of them depend on the fact that our heroes, the ladies and gentleman of phantom-cat-hunting agency Kagura Security, insist of being in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.  The result leans more heavily towards comedy, which is no bad thing when so many of the jokes land as well as they do.  Strangest, surely, is the demented closing song, apparently a reference to a fifties Japanese comedian or something, but what possible relevance that has to anything is anybody's guess.

Now, I can't be objective when it comes to Geobreeders, the book that many a year ago began my interest in Manga.  But the flip side of that is that I was braced for disappointment, especially when my first reaction to the new designs was visceral dislike.  So it should count for at least something when I say that Geobreeders: Breakthrough completely won me over by its end.  And I don't think it's just me; this is an excellent adaptation of a great comic book, delivered with confidence in its concepts and characters, replete with terrific action sequences and genuinely amusing gags.  It might not make a whole lot of sense if you're unfamiliar with the franchise, but then, I am and it didn't make an awful lot of sense anyway; according to the extras, the anime is actually a sequel to the Manga, which to the best of my knowledge never concluded outside of Japan.  But who cares about all that?  Geobreeders was, and is, brilliant fun, and both adaptations do a fine job of capturing its essence.

Battle Arena Toshinden, 1996, dir: Masami Ôbari

It's a testament to just how much of an animation nerd that I am, I think, that I quite enjoyed Battle Arena Toshinden, when to all intents and purposes it's something very ordinary indeed.  And heck, let's not start off by pretending that we're even looking at some hidden masterpiece of the animator's art here: no, it's just that there were some nice, weighty lines in the character designs and a pleasing, scratchy sort of elasticity in the way that bodies move during the action sequences, which brought to mind the similar approach of somewhat more recent shows like Noein and Birdy the Mighty.

There the similarity ends; really, they're not even particularly good action sequences, and largely devolve to what I'm coming to consider as special-move tennis - though, given that it's rare for anyone to get off more than the odd fireball or swirly hurricane thingy, perhaps special-move conkers would be a better analogy.  And this is surely not a good thing in an anime that adapts a fighting game, and exists almost solely to show off a series of duels fought for the most tenuous of reasons, strung together by a plot so flimsy that I'd guessed precisely what the final confrontation would involve before the ten-minute mark of a fifty-minute show.

And though these reviews have been getting longer and longer, I find myself short of anything much else to say.  I did rather enjoy Battle Arena Toshinden, but more, I think, because I was tired and it was undemanding in every conceivable way than because it was in any meaningful fashion good.  As anime based on fighting video games go, I'd rate it between Street Fighter 2, which I fully acknowledge that I dislike irrationally, and Street Fighter Alpha, which I clearly overrate, and for very much the same reasons.  But as we draw closer to dredging the absolute bottom of the barrel, that hierarchy is likely to change, because I suddenly seem to be coming across quite a lot of these things: it turns out that every fighting game worth its salt, and a few worth no salt at all, got their moment in the anime spotlight.  Probably I'll come to consider Battle Arena Toshinden with the same degree of mild contempt that others apparently do; right now, I found it pleasant and straightforward and just interesting enough in its artistry to not be utter fluff.

Ys: Legacy (Book One), 1989, dir: Jun Kamiya

Regular readers, if such unfortunate souls exist, will know that I always try and find something to be positive about in these reviews, even when it takes a fair bit of digging; the reason being, I guess, that I basically love this stuff and want to view it in its best light.  But my god, I'm struggling to think of a nice word to say about Ys.  And this is all the more galling because I was really hopeful for it, and because there's a whole 'nother volume to wade through.

I don't expect many surprises in those remaining three episodes, because Ys is about as boilerplate as boilerplate fantasy could hope to be.  This shouldn't really be surprising, as it's based on (I believe) the first in a long-running video game series of JRPGs.  But there's being based on something, and there's slavishly imitating it even when what it's doing is ill-suited to the medium of imitation, and Ys falls further towards the latter than just about anything I've seen.  It's almost charming - almost! - the extent to which this feels like a reproduction of every damn JRPG ever: at the midway point that I've reached, boring protagonist Adol Christen is exactly halfway through collecting the six relics he's been sent on fetch quests for, and which are needed in combination to rid the utterly generic land of Esteria from its plague of randomly spawning monsters and its big bad, whose rather boss-like minions Adol has been routinely dispatching in clunky climatic action sequences.

Like I said ... almost charming.  And there are moments, as when Adol is wandering in a perfectly horizontal line around a town viewed from that precise nearly-overheard view that we've seen in countless Japanese video games, where it really is rather cute.  But they are few and far between, and that this tiresome nonsense stretched to seven whole episodes when so many great shows barely lasted for one is a slap in the face of the highest order.  Perhaps the reason is that it cost sod-all to make?  It certainly looks cheap as hell, without ever quite descending into the sort of awfulness that would at least make poking holes in the animation amusing.

I can't say I hated Ys; it's nowhere near interesting enough to hate.  But by the halfway mark of this first volume I was starting to nod off, and it took tremendous effort to stay awake until the end.  There's just nothing here; no stand-out characters, no sparks of imagination, no stand-out tunes (bar a decent closing track on the latter two episodes), no surprises, not even the occasional enticingly weird monster design.  And for nineties anime, that's about as unforgivable as you can get.  Heck, I even managed to praise M. D. Geist for the occasional neat mecha design!  In short, we're looking at basically the two biggest crimes possible for nineties anime in my book, at least if we're staying away from tentacle-porn: Ys looks rubbish and has a total dearth of ideas or even of entertaining strangeness.  Frankly, that's unforgivable!

Big Wars, 1993, dir's: Issei Kume, Toshifumi Takizawa

Big Wars has a proper story.  I know that, as a fan of nineties anime devoted enough to review the stuff for however the hell long it's been now, I shouldn't be surprised by that, but I was.  It has a proper, grown-up, considered, and moderately original story, one I genuinely got caught up in and was eager to see pan out - and for that I commend it wholeheartedly.

That story in brief: On a terraformed Mars, humanity is under assault from a race that term themselves the Gods.  Mankind is just about holding its own on a military level; what they're struggling with is the fact that the Gods can brainwash anyone to their cause given enough of an opportunity, leaving even the highest echelons of the defence effort riddled with potential spies and terrorists - and, perhaps as dangerously, making it almost impossible to know who to trust.  As Captain Akuh finds himself preparing for a suicide mission to take on the so-far indomitable enemy warship known as "Hell", his path crosses with an old flame who works deep in military intelligence, and who's behaving awfully strangely.

If that doesn't sound quite as original as I proposed above, that's maybe because the Battlestar Galactica reboot mined such very similar territory.  But Big Wars got their first, and had at least as intelligent a stab at the material, without strangling itself in unresolvable plot threads or disappearing up its own colon the way that BSG ultimately would.  It wisely leaves its background hazy and its theology hazier still.  There's some muted discussion of whether the Gods really are, in fact, gods, and if they are what that would mean; but Big Wars never makes much effort to resolve the question.  Nevertheless, it's a pleasant ambiguity to have ticking along in the background, and the design of the Gods and their technology - particularly of Hell itself - is grandiose enough that it's not wholly unfeasible as the work of some malevolent progenitor race.

Other good stuff: the film is about the right length for its material at seventy or so minutes; though there is a quite startling amount of useful backstory crammed into an opening crawl that only speedreaders will be able to follow, so maybe a bit of a prologue wouldn't have hurt any.  The instrumental score is intriguing in the moment, though unlikely to stick in the memory.  The direction is competent and the animation is above adequate.  There's definitely a decent-looking movie in here.

But.  But.  The only legal way you're getting your hands on Big Wars that I know of is via U. S. Manga Corps's DVD release, and as much I'm becoming something of an apologist for the distributor, there's no getting past the fact that this is an extraordinarily crappy release.  The picture was grainy, the colours were murky, and the contrast was so off that no amount of tweaking would make it a comfortable watch.  My guess would be that it's a VHS rip; that's how bad it is.  And I suppose you have to expect such things from a DVD released all the way back in 1996, when this was a terribly new and exciting technology, but that doesn't make the results one jot easier on the eyes.

What we're left with is a conundrum: a film that's far superior to most anime of the period at a narrative level, and which would be acceptably mediocre on a visual level were it not for a particularly crappy DVD release.  If you like sci-fi and vintage anime then it's absolutely worth a look, but it's a heck of a shame that there isn't a print available that does the movie justice.

-oOo-

Truth be told, I now have a sizable backlog of these posts; it was that or hold off from watching things until a) I could review them and b) I'd have little enough actual news to warrant rattling on about anime instead.  However, that was getting ridiculous, since I tend to snap up any cheap DVDs I can find, and there's only so much shelf space to go around.

The point being, I know exactly what's going to be in the next post, and indeed the one after.  And I could even tell you.  But I won't!  Because where's the fun in that?




[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28, Part 29, Part 31]

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2017

Ah, 2017.  The year of movies that I wanted badly to be great, even though there was probably never a hope they would be.  Screw you, Ghost in the Shell, for containing just enough moments of what a legitimate live-action adaptation of one of the finest science-fiction films of all time might have looked like to make me unable to properly hate you.  Screw you, Assassin's Creed, for your utter inability to get a single thing right when you were handed everything you could possibly need on a platter.  Screw you to the ends of the earth, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Worlds, for wasting so much potential, and screw you, Justice League, for your hideous death by committee, and for being released in what was effectively a workprint.  Screw you a little bit, Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale, for being merely pleasant and okay, when you could have been awesome.

Ah, 2017.  The year of the mediocre blockbuster, without a doubt, but also the year in which mediocre blockbusters were hailed as earth-shattering classics.  You know what?  Wonder Woman was fine, as pastiches of the Marvel formula go; but technically it was a bit scrappy, its central character arc was broken beyond redemption by an irredeemable plot twist, its effects work was cheap, and its final boss fight was perhaps the worst a DC movie has yet committed.  And don't get me started on Blade Runner 2049, a badly-acted triumph of running time over narrative that managed to persuade people through sheer force of production design that a plot recycling ideas from half a dozen better movies was some kind of intellectual tour-de-force.  But at least the writers didn't kill off a female character every time their sloth-like plot stalled completely.  Oh, no, wait...

And this rant is already threatening to be longer than my actual top ten.  Let's list some movies, huh?

10) A Monster Calls

Truth be told, and given a few months of retrospect, I don't know that I actually enjoyed A Monster Calls all that much: it's more of a well-made, worthy movie than one that anyone's ever likely to fall in love with.  All the same, I'm awfully glad that something like this should have managed to exist in the film-making climate of 2017, and to not get shunted straight to the purgatory of Netflix.  There aren't, and never will be, enough genre films that deal honestly with topics like grief, guilt, and mortality, and even less are willing to show youthful protagonists experiencing those simple human horrors in ways that are real-feeling and don't demand (or even always allow) our sympathy.  And even if such films were ten a penny, I doubt they'd all offer us lovely, tactile animated sequences, or Liam Neeson as a tree monster, or Sigourney Weaver delivering some of her best work in years.  So while I couldn't love A Monster Calls enough to rate it higher on this list, I certainly did respect it, and I'm glad it exists.

9) Kong: Skull Island

I was a bit baffled by all the indifference this seemed to get; seriously, has anyone out there actually seen a kaiju movie?  Because I've watched a ton of the things this last year, and I tell you, the bar isn't that high.  Kong: Skull Island was no masterpiece - of course it wasn't! - but it was a pretty great example of the thing that it was, and what more can you reasonably expect from the subgenre?  (Okay, so I'll be answering that question further down the list, but still.)  Anyway, Skull Island: It had an ambitious, if bizarre, conceit, it was solidly made, the giant monster action was really rather good, and it had a terrific cast, even if none of them beside John Goodman and John C. Reilly were given anything particularly meaningful to do.  Also, it was weird as hell, especially by American blockbuster standards, and I for one am always glad to see big-budget film-making go wildly off the rails.  Skull Island felt like a B-movie that someone had spent far too much money making more than it did a traditional summer tentpole, making it precisely what I'd want from such an inherently misjudged project.

8) Colossal

There's a part of me that wants this to be at the top of the list.  Partly because of what it is - a giant monster movie, from the director of Timecrimes, in which Anne Hathaway is the giant monster, sort of! - and partly because absolutely no-one I know has even heard of it, and that's a criminal shame.  Is it really so hard to seek this stuff out instead of just obsessing about Star Wars and comic book movies for twelve months out of the year?

Apparently it is.  Yet Colossal was worth seeking out.  It's a mad old muddle of a film, and one that's far more concerned with the metaphorical possibilities of its central concept, which would normally annoy the hell out of me, except that Hathaway is so stunningly good and Vigalondo really does know his genre movies, even when he's mostly using them as infrastructure for bizarre character studies.  It's the kind of film I'd urge anyone to watch, even knowing that half of them (at least!) are likely to hate it - for its lumpy pacing, for its weird shifts in tone, for its fundamental dementedness.  Nonetheless, if you're at all interested in genre cinema then doesn't that make it exactly the kind of thing you ought to be tracking down?

7) The Great Wall

Well done, those people who got so indignant over a trailer cut to misrepresent a film to the American market that they persuaded themselves a Yimou Zhang movie was guilty of whitewashing.  Of course, that name probably doesn't mean a great deal to the kind of person who boycotts a film based on a trailer, instead of taking fourteen seconds to look at the IMDB page, or (god forbid!) watching it and making up their own mind about a movie with a Chinese director and a mostly Chinese cast and in which a large chunk of the dialogue is in Mandarin.  Oh, and in which the other non-Asian lead, with about equal billing to Matt Damon, is Latino.

And how I wish that all this righteous indignation was in the service of a slightly better film!  I really did enjoy The Great Wall, but not because it was any sort of masterpiece.  It's a giddy, silly, gorgeously colourful B movie that feels as though it was made by committee, but an impossibly weird committee that had no real understanding of either Eastern or Western markets.  Probably it was never going to be the breakout global success that it was clearly envisioned to be, but it's still a heck of a shame that such a fun film should be shot down months before it even graced a cinema screen.

6) War For the Planet of the Apes

The worst of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy?  Yeah, I think so.  But given that these movies were head and shoulders above most of what else has been going on in recent years, that still made for a blockbuster of rare style and intelligence.  Granted, its first half was atmospheric but aimless and its second half was exciting but predictable, and it would have been great to have those virtues carrying all the way through without the failings to dilute them; nevertheless, a solid ending to a superb franchise is no small thing, especially when its as basically well assembled as War For the Planet of the Apes.  Really, I feel bad that I don't have more to say; it feels like an age since I saw this one, I was half blind with an eye infection at the time, and if I'm truly honest, it just hasn't stuck in the memory the way the first two did.  So - a disappointment, but a good movie nevertheless.  At any rate, I'm sure going to miss these films and their regular dose of high-minded sci-fi.

5) Thor: Ragnarok

Just as I'd given up on Marvel's ability to make a genuinely excellent movie - or perhaps rather, given up on their interest in even trying to do so when they could simply plug hacks like Scott Derrickson and Peyton Reed into their film-making apparatus and produce perfectly functional mediocrity - along comes Thor: Ragnarok and the wonderful Taika Waititi, who hopefully proved to everyone that hiring a director with something approaching an individual vision and then letting them do their thing isn't automatically box office poison.  And while everyone praised the comedy, which was admittedly (if sporadically) wonderful, for me Thor: Ragnarok's biggest accomplishment was getting me absorbed enough into its silly story and wafer-thin characters that I actually gave a damn what was happening by the time the big action finale came around.  Couple that with some meaningful stakes in a Marvel movie for the first time in what seems like forever and a finale that actually shakes up the status quo and we have the first of these things since - what, The Winter Soldier? - that actually felt somewhat meaningful, beyond being a joyously absurd bit of frivolousness in its own right.

4) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I'm not a big Star Wars fan.  I mean, Star Wars is very much not my thing; I like some science in my science-fiction, and I somehow never really watched the original trilogy as a kid.  Which is to say, my expectations going into The Last Jedi were relatively muted.  I'd heard enough to think that it might be a good film by the definitions of the franchise, and the presence of a director whose work I've liked in the past and who Disney had apparently not dicked about too much for once boded well.  I was ready for an exciting two and a half hours, maybe for some cool special effects, and for a story that would shift things along towards the next one without two much risk or deviation from all of that Joseph Campbell heroes' journey crap that these things thrive on.

What I sure as hell didn't expect was an interesting movie.  I mean, if there was one possibility that I'd have ruled out if you'd asked me, it was that I would sit for two and half hours routinely thinking "this movie is up to interesting things."  But that's precisely what I got: interesting images, interesting twists, interesting reinterpretations of stuff we thought was supposed to be canon, interesting ideas, an interesting (well, broken) narrative structure.  Not interesting characters, sadly, for the most part, since you can't have everything, and there's only so much of J. J. Abrams' mess that one film can be expected to clean up.  Still, for the course of an inexcusably long running time, I was not only consistently entertained but consistently interested, and that's an experience I hardly dare hope for when I go and see a big budget movie these days.  Really, I would be rating it more highly if it wasn't for all that dreadful Monte-Carlo-in-space crap, and for the fact that Daisy Ridley still couldn't act her way out of an unguarded room.

3) Shin Godzilla

I don't personally consider Shin Godzilla to be the greatest Godzilla movie ever made - because, of course, the original is basically the perfect version of itself - but I can certainly understand how some people have arrived at that conclusion.  And had I not been unlucky enough to see it in a showing populated and staffed by idiots, I might even have come close to that conclusion myself.

But probably not.  As much as what we got was in many ways exactly what you'd hope for with Hideaki Anno, mad genius behind the twisted anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion, at the helm, and as much as that means a movie that truly gets on a gut level what it would mean for a modern city to be attacked by a giant, incomprehensible monstrosity torn from its worst nightmares - and though Anno then twists that around into something close to both parody and satire, without sacrificing its heart - nevertheless I find myself standing by my initial reaction that this isn't so much a movie for the established Godzilla fan.  It's a reboot, and a masterful one, but it hews awfully closely to a formula that we've seen (if the "we" in question has spent a large part of the year watching kaiju movies, anyway) many a time before.  All of which is to say that, if you've never encountered a Godzilla movie then Shin Godzilla will likely blow you away, and if you're more familiar with the franchise then a superlative example of a brilliantly entertaining formula is still enough to be considered a highlight of any film-going year.

2) Okja

Joon-ho Bong releases a science-fiction picture, it's widely considered to be a classic, and some media mogul decides that no-one in the UK should be allowed to watch it in cinemas.  My god, it's 2013 all over again!  Granted, Ojka isn't quite as brilliant as Snowpiercer was - or maybe it is and I just need to watch it again, since Snowpiercer took a couple of viewings to really click - and granted Netflix did put on the odd showing, but it still grates that this is increasingly the way things are headed: cinemas are for mainstream blockbusters, and anything remotely interesting is destined to go straight to TV, where we can all enjoy it as it was never intended to be watched, so long as we happen to have paid for whatever streaming service has snapped up the rights.

Anyway.  Okja.  Like I said, it's maybe not a second Snowpiercer; but it has more than its share of brilliance.  Like the titular super-pig, which, despite some imperfect effects work, is such a genuine creation that you soon forget you're looking at a special effect.  Or the performances, which aren't all brilliant, precisely, but are all fascinating in the extreme.  Then again, Seo-hyun An really is brilliant in the lead role, and whenever the film is focusing on her and her adorable monster of a pet, it's downright magical.  But if there's one aspect that pushes Okja from good to borderline masterpiece, it's that - unlike basically everything on this list, and most everything released this year - it's old-school science-fiction, with actual ideas and a pitch-dark commentary on the times we live in.  It's smart and sharp and funny and horribly bleak by its end, and it seems to have put me off eating red meat ever again, which is a hell of a lot more than most films accomplish.

1) Logan

I for one am gutted that Disney have bought up the movie wing of Fox, because this right here is what I want more of.  Fox's X-men movies have been more good than not, but it had been a while since they'd produced a genuine classic.  If Logan is perhaps not the absolute highlight - I still hold a lot of love for X-men 2 - it effortlessly slides into second place, while at the same time reevaluating just what the superhero movie is and can be in a way that no other film has attempted in what feels like an age.

Not only does Logan acknowledge that we're living in the middle of a glut of these things, and that its an entry in a franchise that is perhaps running close to exhaustion, it uses those facts to its immense advantage: Logan's world is even more tired out with superheroes than our own.  And if that was all that Mangold's bold genre hybrid was up to then that alone would be something.  But everyone involved is contributing their absolute A game - which is really saying something in the case of Patrick Stewart, who's been giving these things a degree of integrity they didn't always deserve from the beginning.  His decaying, damaged Professor X is a heartbreaking, terrifying creation, and one of the ways in which Logan feels like the first X-men movie in forever to really try and get under the skin of what a world in which super-powered mutants walked the earth would look like.  That the answers it comes back with are mostly horrible and despairing feels appropriate; that it still routinely manages to find real pathos amid the horror and despair is perhaps what tips the film from great to potential enduring masterpiece.  I'd feel a little surer if only Logan hadn't front-loaded all of its best material; nevertheless, that material is good enough that I'm still willing to throw about a term like "future classic."

Monday, 1 January 2018

2017: Achievement Unlocked

It occurred to me when I started planning this year-just-gone's concluding post that there's a bias inherent in the system: I always write these things at Christmas and Christmas is my least favourite time of year.  I mean, not Christmas itself, exactly, but the dark depths of winter are perhaps not the best vantage point from which to try and objectively summarize twelve months of one's life.  And usually when I look back a few months later, I'm surprised by how pessimistic I've been.

Which is to say, it feels like 2017 was a but rubbish right at this minute; but it's probably safe to assume that a large part of that is the dark and the cold and the fact that I've done next to nothing except line editing for what feels like a decade and is easily five whole months.  Argh, I'm so sick of editing!  And seriously, I'm never going to blunder into a situation where I have to deliver two manuscripts in immediate succession again, because doing so is an incredible, soul-sucking nightmare.  I swear, I've spent maybe two months of 2017 in the business of actually making up stories, and it hasn't been anywhere like enough.  Creatively speaking, I've had my ass kicked.  And that's not even to mention the unusually dreadful year I've had on the short fiction front, with a grand total of one new story sold in the entire twelve month period, a fact made all the worse by the weirdly disproportionate number of editors who just never bothered to get back to me or lost my story down the back of the sofa or whatever.

So, yeah, some stuff sucked.  But a lot didn't.  For a start, I got to try a couple of intriguing new sidelines: somehow I began a tangential career as an interviewer, and got to talk to Joanne Harris and Adrian Tchaikovsky in front of live audiences, both of which were amazing experiences; and thanks to Michael Wills and Digital Fiction Publishing, I got my teeth into slush-reading, which led me to some stunning authors I'd never have encountered otherwise and gave me the chance to help more people get to read their work.  Most importantly, for me at least, The Black River Chronicles are out there in a major way and finding readers: Level One is already proving popular, and with The Ursvaal Exchange released as of late November, we now have a fledgling series for readers to get their teeth into.  It's a book that I'm really excited for, the first I've had out that I felt went mostly right from the beginning and ended up being more or less exactly what I'd intended, and I'm eager to see what people make of it.  Especially since I'm really close to beginning the third book, which is another step up in ambition and another broadening of the world that Mike and I have concocted.  I love this series, and that there are increasingly other people out there who love it is reassuring to know.

And actually, on a personal level, 2017 has been a mostly solid year, too.  There were some crappy moments, sure - I could happily never end up in A&E with an eye infection again ever - and maybe a bit more work than I could reasonably cope with.  But I finally feel like I'm settled back in the north after my years of IT contracting in the wilderness, and that I have stuff going on here, whether it's pub-crawling around Sheffield with that Ian Sales bloke or board-gaming or my D&D campaign (and yay for my D&D campaign, the most fun that I could possibly have while pretending I'm researching for The Black River Chronicles!)  In fact, my birthday celebration, which somehow managed to drag together people from all across the spectrum of my life, was perhaps the nicest birthday I've had - and huge thanks to everyone who made it, your presence meant a lot.

Here's the really exciting thing, though, and the thing that definitively tips 2017 from an okay to a basically good year: this was the first year since I walked away from my regular job that I didn't have to dip into my savings even slightly.  While I didn't exactly manage to live off my writing income, I came considerably closer than on any previous occasion.  I have no idea if this is sustainable, let alone if a level of success where I get to write full time and not be majorly hard up is ever going to be on the cards, but I've already done a little better than I seriously expected to when I walked the plank out of my safe, well-paid IT career.

Oh, and a big part of the reason why is that I've sold another novel, which is due out next year.  I knew there was something else!  But that's kind of a secret right now, so I can't tell you which book it is or who the publisher is or anything at all useful.  The proper announcement should be along sooner rather than later, and it's probably enough to say that this is something wholly, wildly different from anything I've had out before, and that the publisher is one I'm thrilled to be working with, having seen the sort of extraordinary work they've released in the past.

So that was 2017.  I had a new novel out and sold a couple more, both of which are due for 2018.  I managed to keep my head above water; I get to keep doing the job that I (mostly!) love for another twelve months, at the very least.  And whether I end up looking back at this past year as a turning point or a lucky fluke, I feel as though I've proved to myself that the decision I made four and a bit years ago wasn't wholly idiotic, and that alone is enough to make 2017 a win.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 29

I now have enough nineties anime on the shelf for at least half a dozen more posts, so expect these to get a bit more regular again once we hit next year; my plan for the Christmas break is basically to watch and review a whole ton of this stuff.  I mean, that and to clean the house from top to bottom.  And probably a bit of family time, I guess; that's a thing people do at Christmas, right?  But I'm definitely grabbing the opportunity to watch some of the longer releases that have been waiting for absolutely months now.

Anyway, that's the future - and Christmas has defeated the best laid plans of better mice and men than me before now.  So for the meantime, let's get to the latest batch: we have Iria: Zeiram, Silent Service, Spirit Warrior: Festival of the Ogre's Revival and Mask of Zeguy...

Iria: Zeiram, 1993, dir's: Tetsurô Amino, Yoshimi Katsumata, Naoyoshi Kusaka, Naohito Takahashi

One of the pleasures of nineties anime that's hard to reproduce elsewhere is the science-fiction and fantasy miniseries, something that's largely fallen out of favour within anime itself and that has never seriously been a thing in the West.  A six-episode OVA can dig deeper into a story than a feature-length running time, without requiring the commitment of a full-length series; you can cover a great deal of mileage in six half hour episodes, as a show like Gunbuster attests.

And so it goes with Iria: Zeiram - to some extent anyway.  A little digging reveals the series to be a prequel to an earlier live action movie, somewhat confusingly called Zeiram, which would also get a live action sequel a year after this OVA came out.  Anyway, the anime tells the back-story of bounty hunter Iria, as a suspicious job dealt by a shady corporation leads to a confrontation with a seemingly unkillable alien that develops a whole host of unpleasant abilities in their subsequent, increasingly destructive encounters.

If that sounds a bit light as plots go, Iria: Zeiram compensates at least somewhat by providing plenty of shading around the edges.  Iria herself is thoroughly engaging, and an absolute bad-ass to boot, with a cool sci-fi gadget for seemingly every occasion.  And the world she inhabits is an enticingly weird mix of medieval Asian culture and retrofuturism that's pleasantly distinct from most of what was around at the time.  The supporting cast are tolerable company, with the highlight being grumpy, self-serving opposing bounty hunter Fujikuro and the lowest points usually involving a pair of street-urchin kids who are at least a lot less irritating than they might be.  And the animation quality is very good indeed, backed up by mostly solid design work and a terrific orchestral score.

For all that, I can't quite rave about Iria: Zeiram.  While it basically looks damn good, it also has an unfortunate tendency to resemble a Saturday morning kids cartoon, or at least a kid's cartoon from the early nineties.  After much consideration, I decided that this was mostly to do with some iffy vehicle designs and an overly peppy colour palette; on the latter front, when the animators tone it down a bit, the show really does look fantastic.  But the bigger problem comes down to what I said at the start: six episodes is room for a fair bit of story, and there isn't enough here.  There are some ins and outs, some subplots, and an agreeable amount of world-building, but basically the plot boils down to "Iria fights Zeiram", and once you realise that - and that certain crucial information is never going to be revealed because this is, after all, just a prologue - then everything surrounding the central conflict starts to resemble padding, albeit entirely pleasant padding.  At four episodes Iria: Zeiram would have been very good indeed; at six it falls more into the category of an engaging diversion with excellent production values.  That's still a win, but it's also a bit disappointing given how much there is to like here, and given what a terrific lead Iria herself makes for.

Silent Service, 1995, dir: Ryôsuke Takahashi

I've often joked fondly about the fact that nineties anime, at least nineties anime that made it as far as the shores of America and Britain, was not the most varied of art forms: watch any quantity of the stuff and you'll quickly notice that you're seeing an awful late of mecha, girls in skimpy outfits, tentacles, and Blade Runner pastiches.  Still, as par for the course as that may be, it's always a thrill to come across something spectacularly different.  Which brings us to Silent Service, a three-part OVA (neatly repackaged for its US release by Central Park Media as a single feature) that's certainly the only animated, politically-charged thriller about submarine warfare I ever recall seeing.

Say what you like about Central Park Media, who seem to have the most toxic reputation by far of all the companies that helped bring early anime releases to the West, but they certainly were willing to stray from the overly-beaten path on occasions.  Silent Service has none of the traditional genre elements - heck, the submarines don't even transform into giant robots! - and its tone is startlingly adult, with barely a whisper of comedy to lighten its tone.  It's also hugely cynical, and most of that cynicism is angled at Japanese-US relations, which must have been quite startling for the American viewers that CPM were presenting it to.  I mean, a story in which a war-mongering ginger-haired US president pushes the world to the brink of annihilation because an East-Asian country wants to become a nuclear power?  What could be more shockingly implausible?

But, cheap sarcasm aside, I don't want to say too much about the plot, because it's really good, a hugely satisfying sequence of scenes that play out like little puzzle boxes, in which the vital detail is usually figuring out what bit of cleverness sort-of-protagonist and sort-of-antagonist Captain Shiro Kaieda is up to, as his borrowing of a cutting-edge nuclear submarine secretly co-developed by the Japanese and US militaries sends both nations into a panic of fear and paranoia.  It really is thrilling stuff, and while the animation is never better than it needs to be to keep the story moving, it's at least that good: as an exercise in working a moderate budget to best effect, it's impressive.  And though it's a seemingly minor detail, the distinctive character designs are a huge help in keeping track of a large cast.  Most importantly, Takahashi's direction is topnotch, and his ability to ratchet up the tension is enviable.  Submarine warfare can be very exciting or very dull to watch, and Takahashi's firm grasp on his material ensures that it's always the former.  But even the dialogue scenes crackle with energy, thanks as well to a strong cast, in which Masane Tsukayama's performance as Kaieda particularly stands out.  In theory, we should distrust and probably dislike the character, but Tsukayama plays him with such calm confidence that we want to be on his side even when common sense suggests that maybe he's not on ours.

Really, I've little bad to say about Silent Service.  And there's plenty more to admire: the instrumental score is worthy of any top-drawer blockbuster and is far classier than anything you'd expect from an OVA, and whatever was done to cut the three episodes together into one was so seamless that I'd never have guessed this hadn't been a feature all along.  I can see that the ending might be divisive, though personally I liked it quite a bit; heck, I guess the whole thing could be divisive, and the other reviews I've seen seem nervous of the material, as though it's terribly controversial to suggest that the US isn't always particularly brilliant at being the world's policeman.  If that's the kind of thing that might upset you then stay clear, I guess.  If not, and particularly if you're hunting a nineties anime release that's entirely out of the ordinary, then Silent Service is a small treasure and well worth hunting down.

Spirit Warrior: Festival of the Ogre's Revival, 1988, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

The first thing that struck me about Festival of the Ogre's Revival was the truly lovely pen and ink backgrounds; gently abstract, richly atmospheric and thick with splotches of shadow, they were the perfect setting for a tale of supernatural skullduggery.  Unfortunately, the second thing I noticed was that nothing else looked remotely as good - and so the point, I suppose, is one of not judging by first impressions.  With character designs that are merely okay and animation that's mostly functional (and in one scene quite hilariously dreadful) the end product averages out at "a lot like all of those other late-eighties and early-nineties anime about invading demons."

Which is, unfortunately, the best that can be said for the release as a whole.  Part of a series of five films, each with a different director, Festival of the Ogre's Revival is apparently not regarded as a strong point of the series.  I can certainly imagine a good Spirit Warrior film based on the evidence of this one: apprentice mystic Kujaku is a serviceable protagonist, and the universe is appealingly weird, at least so long as you're down with the notion of weaponised Buddhism.  At any rate, I think that's what was going on; the film assumes a certain familiarity with its concepts that, even after watching a ton of similar titles, I can't really claim to have.*  And my real-world knowledge wasn't a great deal of help either, since none of the Buddhists I've met could throw magic fireballs at each other or summon demons.  Or if they could, they kept pretty quiet about it.

Kujaku certainly doesn't keep quiet about his abilities, and neither do his enemies; the result is a title that devotes an awful lot of time to action sequences that aren't terribly thrilling.  The plot is grounded in some fun notions and history, but it's all fairly cursory, with a twist that I saw coming a mile off, and it felt as though the entire second half was devoted to the battle against the big bad.  While I wouldn't complain about that in theory, the animation isn't up to the standard needed to make thirty minutes of people throwing magical attacks at each other exciting.  For a release that does solid work building mood in its quieter moments, that surely wasn't the way to go.  As a supernatural thriller, Festival of the Ogre's Revival might have been successful; as Buddhist Street Fighter it fares less well.

The result is a film (indeed a very short film, and one that feels shorter for not having much in the way of plot) that's perfectly serviceable and diverting to watch, but almost impossible to recommend.  A few gorgeous backgrounds are great and all, but however low we may sometimes set the bar around these parts, they're not enough to warrant a suggestion that you track down a title that's all but impossible to find.  Personally I'll stay on the lookout for other Spirit Warrior releases - there was plenty here that could have worked a great deal better given more room and more capable handling - but this particularly one will be going straight on the "to sell" pile.

Mask of Zeguy, 1993, dir: Shigenori Kageyama

In the opening scene of Mask of Zeguy, a samurai - real historical figure Hijikata Toshizō, who for our present purposes has travelled through time to second-world-war-era Japan - battles werewolf cyborgs, before flying off on a giant seaplane piloted by famous eighteenth century polymath physician, artist and inventor Hiraga Gennai.  Their course takes them through a floating aircraft graveyard and then, thanks to the fat black-and-white cat they're using as a compass, into a giant doorway in the sky.  This all happens in roughly the first five minutes.  And things get weirder from there.

On the face of it, what we have here is a fairly typical chosen-one second world fantasy sort of affair, with teenage heroine Miki being spirited away - if you will! - to a parallel world in which she's the reincarnation of a priestess and the only one who can unite the magical doodads and defeat the evil queen Himiko.  (Presumably this is the same Himiko who was queen of Yamataikoku in ancient Japan, though no-one ever feels the need to clarify the point.)  In practice, the 75 minute film - really two OVA episodes with a fair chunk of repeating footage, and so closer to an hour sans credits - is such a delightfully odd mess that it feels reductive to lump it in wholly with the many, many such similar stories.  Alice in Wonderland, for instance, didn't include motorbike-riding robot monsters, nor a character called Da Vinci who carries with him a puppet that emulates his every motion, nor a scene in which the living generator that powers the heroes' flying transport has babies.

Surely needless to say, I was entranced by this madness; I could never bring myself to be particularly negative about anything that vomits out absurd ideas and impossible characters at such an energetic rate.  But I'd be lying if I claimed Mask of Zeguy has many more cards up its sleeve.  The animation is adequate, and this is practically the first show I've seen with some legitimately crappy backgrounds; there's a sense of enthusiastic efforts being made on an inadequate budget, and the result is likable even when it's a bit embarrassing, but to say more than that would be too kind.  Cheap and cheerful might, on the whole, be the most generous praise one can legitimately offer.

So did I enjoy Mask of Zeguy?  Obviously I enjoyed it plenty.  Did it have its flaws?  Heck yes.  And would I recommend it?  In honesty, I suppose I can't, beyond saying that it's the sort of thing that if you happened to stumble across it on the telly and bothered to watch it, you'd go away with a giddy sense of pleasure and mild bafflement.  Only, we live in an age where no one really stumbles across things on TV anymore, and if they did, it certainly wouldn't be an obscure nineties anime show.  Which is a shame, because, while a long way from the sort of lost treasure I'm always pretending these posts are a hunt for, Mask of Zeguy is really a good deal of what I love: silly, energetic fun with more imagination than sense, made by people who obviously cared about the story there were telling even when they didn't have the space or budget needed to do it justice.

-oOo-

I feel like this was a good batch, despite a certain amount of evidence to the contrary.  I also feel like I've dipped into some very strange waters by this point, and maybe that's the true reason for my disproportionate enthusiasm.  Asides, just possibly, from Iria: Zeiram, there's nothing here that anyone much cares about anymore.  And yet Silent Service was brilliant, Mask of Zeguy was dopey but fun, and even Spirit Warrior had its moments.

Certainly my heroes of the moment are Central Park Media, who seem to have made a habit of cheerfully releasing just about anything and everything, and thus are a wholesome antithesis to the likes of Manga, who helped to leave an entire generation with the opinion that all anime was either cyberpunk or tentacle porn**.  Granted, if everyone had been watching Central Park Media releases instead, they'd probably just have concluded that anime was cheaply made, random crap, but you can't have everything, right?  At least not all the time and in the same place.




[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27, Part 28, Part 30Part 31]




* In particular, it reminded me a great deal of The Dark Myth - reviewed way back in July 2015 - which has some of the same faults, but compensates for them by being absolutely insane and intermittently brilliant.  But it's tough to be positive about any film that makes you want to watch The Dark Myth for fifty-five minutes!

** And only now, as I bother to do a bit of research, do I discover that Central Park Media were the original licensees of  Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend.  I guess if I had any journalistic integrity I'd rewrite that whole paragraph...